Collaboration is critical when it comes to making students safer.
That’s the bedrock of the Cherry Creek School District’s unique and ever-evolving approach to safety and security across its 108 square miles. District officials have worked directly with multiple law enforcement agencies and fire departments to create a more streamlined and effective protocol for handling emergencies. It’s a model that puts first responders, law enforcement officials and school security on the same page as far as vocabulary, procedure and response time.
But it takes work to make that kind of collaborative philosophy work in a real-time setting. Plans and theory aren’t the same as practice, and when it comes to school security, operating efficiently in a real-time setting can mean the difference between life and death.
That’s why the hundreds of professionals responsible for the safety of Cherry Creek students, staff and administrators aren’t satisfied with simply talking about preparedness. Case in point: more than 200 police officers, fire fighters, emergency responders and other personnel met at Sky Vista Middle School on Oct. 28 to prepare for the worst. The representatives from 23 different agencies took part in detailed and complex training exercises, simulations that lasted all day and involved a crew of actors, school personnel and other contributors.
According to Randy Councell, the district’s director of safety and security, that level of detail is critical to adequately meeting the security needs of every building in Cherry Creek.
|“You’re seeing the culmination of the next phase of
training. We’re doing active threat drills, and now what you’re seeing
is the bringing together of fire fighters, law enforcement officers,
school district representatives and they’re training in multiple
functions,” said Jerry Rhodes, chief of the Cunningham Fire Protection
“This exercise is a first for us at the school district, and it’s probably the biggest one that I know of in the metro area,” Councell said in between training sessions. “In reality, if a call ever did go out from a school, it’s going to involve multiple agencies, it’s not going to be one or two. This kind of training gives everyone the chance to meet, practice and feel comfortable with the tactics.”
Funded through a grant through the Homeland Security Department’s north-central region, the training gave officers from multiple police departments and fire departments the chance to work together and to exchange important experience gleaned from years spent on the job.
“You’re seeing the culmination of the next phase of training. We’re doing active threat drills, and now what you’re seeing is the bringing together of fire fighters, law enforcement officers, school district representatives and they’re training in multiple functions,” said Jerry Rhodes, chief of the Cunningham Fire Protection District. Rhodes also serves as the chair of the North Central Region of the Homeland Security Department in Colorado, and he sits on the state’s School Safety Resource Board. “The value of having all of these people together is that it mimics reality. We want our reality to mimic our training.
“Train as you fight; fight as you train,” he added.
Adding that degree of immediacy to the training process is critical, Rhodes added, referring directly to the difficult lessons learned at Columbine High School in 1998. Responding to those tragic school shootings, multiple agencies that had not trained together responded, which impacted response time.
“They did not have the same standard operating approach,” Rhodes said.
Preventing those kinds of miscues has been the focus of the Cherry Creek School District’s constant updates to the security procedures over the past year. The district has worked closely with representatives from the five law enforcement agencies that represent the 108 miles of Cherry Creek. The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, along with police departments from Aurora, Greenwood Village, Glendale and Cherry Hills had a direct role in developing the district’s safety policy. That work came along with communication with departments in Littleton, Englewood and Sheridan, as well as the Colorado State Patrol.
The district has also worked with South Metro, Cunningham and Aurora fire departments to streamline a common language and has included Englewood, Buckley and volunteer agencies from Strausburg, Bennet and other communities near the fringes of the district in the effort.
Most of those agencies were represented in the 200 responders from 23 agencies present at Sky Vista Middle School. The exercise gave responders with all levels of experience and expertise the chance to work together to prevent the worst kind of tragedy.
“We’ve had mass shooting incidents in Colorado, and a lot of people here have had experience responding to those,” said Ken McKlem, special operations lieutenant for the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Department. “We try to look for any lessons learned and apply them; we implement that through the training and the exercises … It’s a constant process of looking at what goes on in actual situations and training and exercises trying to instill the best, state-of-the-art practices, tactics, doctrine and equipment that we possibly can.
“It’s a never-ending process that continues year in and year out,” he added.
That’s part of the reason Councell wants to make such large-scale and detailed training exercises an annual event.
“We want to do something of this magnitude and size yearly,” Councell said. “We want to include new tactics and new techniques that are being developed. This is how we get practice and make sure it works. This is the time to find out, rather than during a crisis.”